The Subjective Side of Aging: Age Identity

The Subjective Side of Aging

“The years teach much which the days never knew.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Many people have a subjective inner sense of being older or younger than their chronological age.  This subjective side of aging is termed age identity… the age that someone feels like they are.  What do you think makes the difference between a 30 year old who feels 20 and one who feels more like 40?  Age identity is not related to whether or not someone looks their age – it is a completely internal and subjective feeling of one’s identity being connected (or not) with their chronological age.

Age Identity

Researchers have identified several social experiences that can dramatically affect changes in age identity over time.  These changes are generally the result of a dynamic interaction between the person’s chronological age and their life conditions and experiences.  Particular experiences have been shown to dramatically accelerate the process of subjective aging and break down one’s youthful identity.

Role Transitions & Off-Time Events

Society sends us countless messages about when certain life events are “supposed” to happen.  When things happen before or after they are “supposed” to happen, people take notice.  For example, research has shown that children who experience the death of a parent have an accelerated process of subjective aging than children who don’t have this tragic experience.  Similarly, children and adolescents who lose a parent before they have reached adulthood tend to feel older than their peers whose parents are still alive.  The loss of a child is another example of an off-time event.  One study of middle-aged adults indicated that those who had experienced the loss of a child felt (on average) five years older than those who had not.

Stress & Adversity

Perhaps it is not surprising to learn that research shows that people who experience high levels of chronic stress generally have older biological ages than those without chronic stress.  Factors such as financial or occupational stress also have a strong influence on the acceleration of subjective aging.  Stress and adversity often results in people feeling older than their chronological ages by reducing positive mood and lowering their sense of control over their lives.  A large national study showed that teenagers who felt unsafe in their neighborhood or had witnessed violence tended to report older subjective ages than their peers who resided in safer neighborhoods.

Health & Well-Being

It makes sense to hear that people who develop significant heath problems tend to feel older than their healthy peers.  The experience of illnesses such as cancer or heart problems can prove to be a haunting reminder of one’s own mortality.  When illnesses strike, many people are reminded of their finite time on this planet, resulting in a higher subjective age.  One’s mental health has a significant impact on age identity as well.  People with a more positive mood report feeling younger than people who feel less calm and happy.  This works in the reverse as well… people with a younger age identity experience less nervousness, fear, and distress.

How old do you feel as compared to your chronological age?  When you consider the various factors that can positively and negatively impact age identity, what do you realize is within your control to alter?  While you often have little control over some external life events, you always have control over how you choose to respond to those events.  You can make the choice to find meaning in life’s hardships as well as life’s joys.

In this present moment, you are alive and breathing, which means that you have the opportunity to look at your life in a new way.  You can make the choice in this moment to change your outlook on yourself, others, and the world.  Your chronological age is going to keep on changing with time, but the way you feel inside is entirely up to you.  When you make the most of each present moment and express gratitude for the opportunities within each moment, the concept of age falls away.  You are no longer an age, you are your true self.

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Try this fun “Emotional Age Quiz” from Oprah.com to further explore your age identity.

Russell, D. (2011, November 25). [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/distress-in-context/201111/social-experiences-make-you-feel-older

Featured image: age by Charlene Tetiyevsky / CC BY-ND 2.0

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